The Martian, Andy Weir and the Ghost of Michael Crichton

Reading Andy Weir’s brilliant novel The Martian, I was consistently reminded of the work of Michael Crichton, who sadly passed away from cancer a few years ago. That seems like an easy comparison to make (yawn). Crichton was best known for his science fiction (Jurassic Park, The Andromeda Strain, Sphere), and Weir’s novel is clearly in the same wheelhouse.

On the other hand, Crichton’s brand of techno-thriller was actually a rare breed, a very particular alchemy of scientific fact, extrapolation, high adventure, horror and social commentary. Crichton had far more in common with H. Rider Haggard and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (think The Lost World, Doyle’s novel, not Crichton’s) than with his more immediate sci-fi predecessors Arthur C. Clarke or Issac Asimov.

It’s worth noting that between Crichton’s death and Weir’s novel, few if any science fiction novels have captured the attention of genre fans and non-genre fans alike (the only contenders here are speculative YA novels, which deal very little with the science end of sci-fi).

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Weir has a particular talent for making science, if not exactly exciting, certainly less boring. I should note here that I’m a science nut, but even I have a low tolerance for explanations of the exact chemical process by which you can strip carbon-dioxide into pure oxide and then combine it with hydrogen to get H20, all on Mars.

Weir’s book is full of just such explanations: of chemistry, physics, botany, aerodynamics, and orbital mechanics.

What’s worth noting, however, is that with all this technical detail, the book never bogs down.

This, too, was Crichton’s gift. Remember all those pages of computer computations from The Andromeda Strain and Jurassic Park? Remember the detailed description of jungle topography in Congo? Or how about the intricate explanations of quantum mechanics in Timeline?

With Crichton, what I’m sure you don’t remember is being bored. Crichton’s genius was in understanding what parts of the science the public would find fascinating and giving them those tasty bits, all the while leaving out the parts people would find too complex to digest.

Purists might scoff, but Crichton was writing fiction, after all, not a textbook.

The Martian has another thing going for it: it’s tremendously funny. I don’t know if this was simply an outgrowth of Weir’s own personality (the book is told mostly in the first person, and POV more likely to let an author’s personality shine through), or if this was a carefully considered narrative tactic. Either way, the result is the same. What otherwise might have been a brilliant but inaccessible NASA scientist became a character every reader could come to care about. After all, he seems like such a regular guy.

With the Matt Damon movie aiming to hit theaters in the very near future, Weir’s career is off to a tremendous and auspicious start. Crichton too conquered the big screen, as well as television. Obviously, it remains to be seen if Weir can sustain his current level of success, but The Martian is certainly a convincing start.

If he continues to find ways to blend science, adventure, sympathetic characters and good humor, I’m sure Weir will be entertaining the public for many decades to come.

Buy a book and help a family devastated by the 2015 summer wildfires

Hi! My name is Tyler Miller. Welcome to my website. I just wanted to take a quick second to let you know that I am donating half of the profits from all the sales of my books The Other Side of the Door and Stranger Calls to wildfire relief funds in Washington State.

Hundreds of homes were lost this summer, as well as the lives of multiple firefighters. If you have the opportunity, check out the titles in the Fiction section of this website.

Your generosity will be greatly appreciated.

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